North Woods 'Bills and 'Eyes

Bluebill hunting and walleye fishing on Ontario's pristine Lake of the Woods
by Will Brantley

I'm helping Bruce Batt sort through bluebill decoys at his cottage on Lake of the Woods near Kenora, Ontario. The decoys have been in storage for a while, but other than a few missing weights, they are in serviceable condition—a good thing since we'll be using them over the next few days.

"Pat and I rigged most of these decoys years ago, probably before you were born," Bruce says, setting aside a decoy in need of a new weight. This trip is my first time meeting Bruce, retired chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, as well as his friend of 40 years Pat Caldwell, a retired senior research scientist with DU Canada. Though Bruce and Pat maintained close contact during their careers, they haven't hunted together in nearly 20 years.

We travel by boat the next morning from Bruce's cottage two hours south to Spruce Island Camp in Sabaskosing Bay. There, we'll be meeting Bob Sundberg, his sons Chad and Andy, as well as Peter Methven and his twin sons, Bill and Bryce. The Sundbergs and Methvens, longtime DU Major Sponsors and volunteers, are boating in from the Minnesota side of the lake.

A variety of waterfowl are attracted to the shallow coves and wild rice flats in Lake of the Woods, but we're focusing on deeper bays and scaup during this trip. Lake of the Woods is famous for its fishing too. Big muskies get most of the press, but the walleye fishing is outstanding as well. Walleyes will never win any cage fights against muskies, but they're much better to eat. Bob and Peter have been making fall trips to Spruce Island since their now-adult sons were kids to combine early morning diver hunts with afternoon fishing—none of it at a real fast pace.

There are more than 14,500 islands in Lake of the Woods and many more partially submerged rock bars that will rip the transom out of a boat. Navigation can be treacherous without a good map, planned route, and experienced boat captain. French fur traders mapped out the route we're following in the 1600s en route to the Rainy River.

We arrive at the camp early in the afternoon. There are six rustic cabins and a main office on this island that may be 200 yards long. After we unload the gear, I'm introduced to the Minnesota volunteers. They've just returned from hunting and are plucking a few bluebills, a goldeneye, and a vagrant scoter that wandered into their spread. They're loud and jovial, and offer stout handshakes and Canadian beer.

Bob tells us that although fried walleyes are on the menu the first night, the guests of honor are still in the lake. "Everyone needs to get two fish for his supper," he says. "If you can't do that, you don't get to eat. But we know of a decent spot to go."

The boat ride to the Sundbergs' favorite fishing area is a lengthy one, but I'm pretty hungry so I don't complain. When we get there, it's teeming with keeper walleyes. We drop minnow-tipped jigs over the side of the boat until they hit bottom, reel up a half turn, and wait for a bite. It usually doesn't take long. Bruce, Pat, and I earn places at the table.

Later, we're discussing hunting strategy and telling "Ole and Lena" jokes over a meal of butter-fried walleyes. I'd be hunting with the Sundbergs the following morning at Eagle Point, a spot they have been hunting for 10 years.

"You'll see how Eagle Point earned its name tomorrow," Bob says. "There's always an eagle there, and I guarantee he'll steal the first duck we shoot before we can get to it."

We're hiding in the brush on Eagle Point shortly after daylight the next morning with a dozen worn cork decoys bobbing in a slight chop. "There he is," Chad says, pointing to a tree line on the other side of the bay. There's a big bald eagle perched on a limb, eyeing our decoy spread.

"He must have heard the boat coming and gotten ready," Bob says.

This spot hasn't been hunted in a year, I think to myself. Can an eagle remember something like that for a year?

"Buffleheads!" someone whispers. Two of the speedy little ducks are 20 yards shy of gun range and closing the distance fast. A single shot folds the lead bird just as they pass over the decoys. Before we can make the initial steps toward the boat to retrieve it (the water is 10 feet deep), the eagle glides from its perch and handily plucks the bufflehead from the water. The point is aptly named.

Unfortunately, the bluebills don't make much of a showing, save for a lone bird that appears from behind us and manages to land in the decoys, flush, and escape without a single shot being fired. We decide to pick up and try a grassy pocket a few miles north of camp.

Several ducks flush when we approach. We hastily toss out the decoys and scatter along the bank, using downed treetops as makeshift blinds. After an hour wait, three young mallards finally return and drop right into the decoys. We shoot all three and call it a morning soon afterward.

Reconvening at camp, Bruce and Pat have seen several bluebills, but have shot only one. The Methvens return from a more successful hunt, however, with a dozen scaup to show for their efforts. We pluck and wax each of the birds, and Bob prepares roast duck and vegetable cream sauce for dinner.

I hunt with Bruce and Pat the next morning. The biggest flight of birds they'd seen the previous day had entered the bay around 10 a.m. and broken off into several small groups before finding suitable areas to land. We find hiding places along a rocky, windswept point, hoping to intercept a similar flight.

We knock down two mallards that give the decoys a nervous look an hour into the morning. Then, at 10 a.m., 50 or more bluebills approach from the same area where Bruce and Pat had seen them the day before. Several of them skirt our spread. Knuckles tighten around shotguns as we watch the ducks from our point, but none of them pass close enough for a shot.

Although the hunting is slow, the fishing that afternoon is fantastic. Rather than make a long run, Bruce decides to sample some areas closer to camp. Without revealing anything too specific, there are fall walleyes to be caught within sight of Spruce Island. Bruce and Pat both catch sizeable fish, the largest a 6-pounder that Bruce hooks on a spinner and artificial minnow.

I join the biologists again for the last morning hunt. We're hunting the same bay and have a vendetta against the 10 o'clock flight of bluebills. Rather than set up on a shoreline point, an unsuccessful strategy the previous two mornings, we decide to anchor the boat on one side of a small island in the middle of the bay and place the decoys on the other side.

Although scattered bluebills intermittently fly across the bay, the 10 a.m. flight doesn't show. A cold rain keeps us huddled inside our parkas most of the morning. During a brief interval in the shower, I look up to see a single bluebill bearing down on the decoys as if they've insulted him. I shoulder my gun in near astonishment and fold the duck. Why can't we convince other bluebills to act like that?

A quiet hour later, about the time we're growing weary of the rain, a goldeneye drops into the spread as well. Bruce's gun is rested over his shoulder, but he nonetheless ends the hunt with a successful snap shot.

After we load Bruce's boat for the trip home, we of course discuss the week's slow hunting pace. I don't know that it has really bothered anyone. I'm sore from laughing at Ole and Lena's exploits for three nights, and my hands are raw from unhooking fish. I've learned a lot about ducks from two biologists who've been studying and hunting them since before I was born.

"This isn't always the best place to shoot a bunch of ducks," Bob tells me. "But it's a great place to spend time with family and friends." Although I was a complete stranger to this crowd only three days ago, I have to agree.

For more information on do-it-yourself hunting and fishing at Spruce Island Camp, visit spruceislandcamp.com, or call 807-543-4087 (summer); 320-732-2689 (winter).


DU and Bluebills

Although 2009 spring surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicated that breeding scaup numbers were above 4 million for the first time since 2000, they remain 18 percent below their long-term average and continue to be a species of concern to waterfowl managers.

Biologists don't fully understand the reasons for the decline in bluebill numbers, but as referenced in "The Great Scaup Mystery" (November/December 2007 issue of Ducks Unlimited), degraded spring staging and breeding habitat conditions likely contribute to poor nesting success and are among the most pressing concerns. Contaminants found in mollusks that are eaten by scaup are also possible factors in the birds' decline.

DU is working to brighten the future for bluebills and preserve the diver hunting tradition. The Living Lakes Initiative seeks to restore previously drained shallow lakes and wetlands and protect existing habitat through water-level management and by controlling invasive species in wetlands of the upper Midwest. These wetlands, like Lake of the Woods, are early stops for bluebills during fall migration. DU is also participating in the Lesser Scaup Study, a multi-partner research project documenting lesser scaup migration corridors, which will aid in conservation efforts. The final report from the study was scheduled to be submitted in December 2009.

For more information on the Lesser Scaup Study, visit: www.ducks.org/scaupresearch. To learn more about the Living Lakes Initiative, visit: www.ducks.org/livinglakes